Farmhand Diaries: An Early End to a Promising Harvest

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Loosing the larvestMidway through this season, we lost our harvest of blueberries.

They fell off the bush, green and ripe berries, by the handfuls until there was nothing left, nothing for the market, nothing to eat. Even the birds got cheated.

We were short on water, and the plants couldn’t hold their fruit. The loss has been devastating.

We worked so hard all year—weeding, trimming, pruning and feeding—for this moment when these plants put on a display of berry production that boggles the mind but ordinarily lasts only eight to 10 weeks. The southern highbush varieties we grow are top performers not only in yield but in sweet juicy, flavor-rich berries.

Word spread quickly. Early May, our berries were among the first locally grown and the highest quality to hit area markets. Customers were raving about them.

“These are really delicious,” they exclaimed, “when can we get some more?”

After delivering to restaurants and markets, we brought some home. We made pies, smoothies, ate them like popcorn, put them on salads and desserts. They were fantastic berries, better than last year’s but we were having a hard time keeping up with the demand.

The season got off to a slow start. We’d harvest one day and then wait three or more days before there would be enough ripe berries to pick again. It wasn’t until the second or third week that we were able to harvest more than two days in a row.

Last season, we hit the ground running. We could have harvested every day had we been better prepared with more markets. We were oversupplied from the start.

This year, based on our experience, we were better prepared and lined up buyers from restaurants and local grocery stores. They were eager, especially after sampling, to purchase our fresh-picked fare. And it appeared that any day we’d be filling our haul.

Huge fat green clumps of berries seemingly popped out of nowhere, hanging like grapes in the lush green foliage that provides the berries with food, waiting for the magic moment when they would start to turn crimson, then darken to purple-blue. When the berry turns fully and evenly purple, it’s time to pick.

I began to notice, however, that green berries were falling off the bush in large quantities before they even had a chance to ripen. I noticed other problems too that indicated stress in the plants.

The earliest tell-tale sign of stress that I noticed was fruit cracking, which occurs when plants become dehydrated; the ripening fruit stops growing, the skin cracks, and develops a greyish-brown scar in the center of the berry. It’s not an attractive or marketable berry. Plus, it points to the more important matter of getting adequate water to the plants and protecting them from dehydration and fruit loss.

The summer heat hit us early, and the plants’ water needs were increasing and becoming critical.

“With the harvest coming on line,” I wrote in my field log on April 29, “we can’t afford to risk the [plants from] drying out in the hot sun. The plants definitely won’t fare well in this heat, not without water.”

Before noon that day, the temperature had reached 90 degrees and I saw obvious signs of stress in the plants—wilting, browning on the edges of some leaves, and more viable berries dropping to the ground.

All of my reading on blueberry plants suggests that the key to maintaining healthy plants and ensuring a plentiful harvest is to keep them moist. So long as we have adequate water, even with the plants in containers and exposed to the sun, it’s relatively easy to keep them happy and producing.

Without adequate water, however, it becomes nearly impossible to maintain healthy fruit, let alone healthy plants.

We’ve been allotted water three days a week from our provider, which has been fine during the winter months when there’s little demand for it from non-producing plants. But now, when temperatures get into the 80s and 90s, we need water two to three times a day.

We pleaded with our provider to increase our water allotment to more three days a week as early summer temperatures hit the 80s and 90s. I explained that in those temperatures, our containers, and the tender root systems inside, would cook without water to cool them.

He said he couldn’t help me because he had his own water issues. “I’ve got avocados falling off my trees,” he said. “What am I supposed to do?” When he told me this, I noticed that, not 20 feet from where we were standing, there was plenty of water flowing in the creek that passes his orchards and turns at the south end of our field.

“I’ll come out and water at midnight if I must,” I pleaded, “just work with me here. I’ve got viable, marketable fruit that’s falling off the bush.”

He suggested we get a water tank and stuck to the three-day water allotment. By then it was clear that we would not be getting any more water, that something had gone wrong in our attempt to work out an agreement, and that we needed to remove ourselves from our current location and find a new home.

A water tank is out of the question now but will be included in the plans for our next location.

By late June, all the fruit was gone. It fell and disappeared for lack of adequate water. We’ve gone into a triage approach, trimming the fat, lessening moisture demands as much as possible, leaving enough leaf mass to protect the containers from the direct sun, and doing our best to keep the plants alive and healthy through the summer, or until we can find a new home. §

Stacey Warde writes from his home in Cayucos, Calif., where he tends a two-acre container farm of blueberries not far from scenic coastal Highway 1. He has received numerous awards for his writing and is a former publisher of the literary magazine, The Rogue Voice. He can be reached at roguewarde@gmail.com.

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